Review: Fathomfolk by Eliza ChanFathomfolk by Eliza Chan
Series: Drowned World #1
Published by Orbit on February 27, 2024
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Format: ARC
Source: Received from publisher

Revolution is brewing in the semi-submerged city of Tiankawi, between humans and the fathomfolk who live in its waters. This gloriously imaginative debut fantasy, inspired by East Asian mythology and ocean folk tales, is a novel of magic, rebellion and change.

Welcome to Tiankawi - shining pearl of human civilization and a safe haven for those fleeing civil unrest. Or at least, that's how it first appears. But in the semi-flooded city, humans are, quite literally, on top: peering down from shining towers and aerial walkways on the fathomfolk - sirens, seawitches, kelpies and kappas - who live in the polluted waters below.

For half-siren Mira, promotion to captain of the border guard means an opportunity to help her downtrodden people. But if earning the trust and respect of her human colleagues wasn't hard enough, everything Mira has worked towards is put in jeopardy when Nami, a know-it-all water dragon and fathomfolk princess - is exiled to the city, under Mira’s watch. When extremists sabotage a city festival, violence erupts, as does the clampdown on fathomfolk rights. Both Nami and Mira must decide if the cost of change is worth paying, or if Tiankawi should be left to drown.

Fathomfolk is an adult fantasy that hinges on the political unrest between humans and fathomfolk, creatures with gills whose forms are many and varied. Sirens, sea witches, kappas, water dragons and more – all are fathomfolk. Despite their diversity, humans view fathomfolk as a monolith…one they have a vested interest in relegating to society’s underclasses.

Fathomfolk and humans alike call the city of Tiankawi their home. Built partially on the water, with wooden boats in one quarter and trams and cable cars in the next, the city is the highlight of this story. It’s packed with people of different cultures, languages, and religions all jockeying for space in the same area. To build this diversity, Chan draws on legends and languages from all across Asia. You can expect to find names and mythologies from Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Korean culture – and others! It’s because of this cultural diversity – and the stark divide between rich and poor, citizen and refugee – that Tiankawi reminded me of real-world cities like Singapore.

This familiarity is no accident. Fathomfolk has a clear political positioning: the critical examination of migration politics, xenophobia, and capitalism. That’s the idea, but the execution is a little lacking at times. Eliza Chan draws attention to how magnified these issues become when environmental collapse forces disparate peoples to live together in one densely packed area. The different neighbourhoods of Tiankawi represent some of these ideas, and while I wouldn’t call it subtle, it is effective. The palatial residences in the human-only Jingsha district are located at Tiankawi’s highest point while the poorest fathomfolk live three families to one residence in the mouldy port-side Seong district.

This is a political fantasy novel with commentary on migration politics, xenophobia, and environmental collapse - but it isn't well executed.

To me, Fathomfolk reads more like a call to action than a fantasy novel. Even its characters are explicitly tied to politics, with each one representing an archetypal figure. We have the Mira, the “model minority” who has to swallow racist hypocrisy to shift the needle for her people; Kai, the politician who naively believes that changing legislation can undo prejudice; Nami, the inexperienced and recently radicalized revolutionary caught up in a movement she doesn’t fully understand; and Serena, the ruthless opportunist who uses flaws in the system against other fathomfolk before they can use them against her. None of them are portrayed as fully right or wrong, fully wise or naive. Each of their perspectives has its flaws.

My main issue with Fathomfolk is not its ideas, but their execution. This is an ambitious undertaking even for a seasoned novelist, let alone a debut! The entire story hinges on its cast of characters but their simplistic development made them seem like symbols instead of people. This was especially obvious with Nami, whose hot-headed recklessness and gullibility made for a rather unlikable combination. I love a political radical, but she was making the rest of us look bad! Clearly that is the point, and she grows a lot as she moves from the realm of talking about politics to becoming involved in political action. By the final chapters, I was rooting for and worried for Nami – in other words, I was finally invested in her character arc. Mira, on the other hand, I was on board with right away. Huge  things happened for her in the final act and despite my problems with this one, I do plan to read the sequel to see where she ends up.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the plot – the less said about it, the better. There’s a lot going on and it isn’t managed well, so it feels chaotic instead of epic. The pacing overall is poor, although it  evens out in the last third. I had high hopes that it would stick the landing, but the ending features a bizarre deus ex machina that has me scratching my head. 

If you like political fantasy novels or pan-Asian inspired magic and worldbuilding, then you should put Fathomfolk on your radar. This debut novel is far from perfect, but it is creative – and it has something of substance to say.